Summary: In Acts 11:1-18, we begin to see the legacy of faith and risk-taking for the sake of the Gospel that included us in the promises of Christ
It all started when they saw Jesus for the last time. His last words to them, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and all Judea, and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.” Peter was among those who heard these words, and believed them. I’m sure, though, that full impact of what these words actually meant didn’t fully sink in at the time. How could they?
This was a call to do something that Peter had never done, in fact, had never imagined doing. Taking the message of Salvation in Christ to Jews in Jerusalem and Judea, sure that made sense. But to Samaria, those ethnic and spiritual half-breeds (as the Jews thought of them)? To the ends of the earth? This would mean reaching out to people so different. People, the likes of whom none of the disciples had ever met, much less, been around. This was going to be hard. This was going to have to be a Holy Spirit thing.
At the time, Peter didn’t really think about all this. But he was thinking about it now. He had arrived in the Judean town of Joppa. And after he greeted his host, a Tanner by the name of Simon, Peter went up onto the flat roof of Simon’s house to pray. The noon day sun blanketed Peter as he prayed. I don’t know what he prayed, probably something fairly ordinary. But suddenly, things got decidedly un-ordinary. Peter tells us what happens next, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision, something like a great sheet descending, being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to me. Looking at it closely, I observed animals and beasts of prey and reptiles and birds of the air.”
The sheet, or whatever it was, was filled with all kinds of animals. Some Peter recognized as being clean and Kosher according to the Laws laid out in Leviticus 11. However, mixed in with them were a number of unclean animals. Animals no moderately devout Jew would even touch, much less eat. So the order following the vision came as a shock, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” What?! NO! This had to be some kind of mistake. But God would let there be no mistaking. In fact, just to make his point, God repeated this vision two more times.
We don’t really get it, because we aren’t first century Jews. But this was truly difficult for Peter. It was a dismantling of a religious tradition, and laws that were thousands of years old. It was abandoning this pride that Peter’s people had celebrated for so long, that they did things that set them apart from their neighbors. This was an unraveling of centuries of Jewish religious thought, about what it was that included someone in the family of God.
I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now. That this whole exchange was never really about food. It was about challenging Peter, and all the Jewish followers of Christ, to redefine what it means to be part of God’s family. To understand who God wanted to include as his people. Of letting go of things that had served as crutches for their identity (Heritage, Laws, Rules, Traditions) and holding on to the one thing that matters. Taking steps relying only on the Grace of God.
It took three times for the message to sink in. And what it meant for Peter, what it meant for the church was that things were going to be getting really messy, really fast. And this is exactly what God wanted. And it did happen fast. There came a knock at the door while Peter was still thinking about all of this. Simon the Tanner answered (I’m guessing), and shouted up to the roof. Peter’s haze was broken, probably with words like, “There are some guys from Caesarea here to see you, they said God sent them!”
They told him why they were there. Their master, a man named Cornelius, “told us how he had seen the angel stand in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” And so the messiness starts. These men, these outsiders, these Gentiles stayed as Simon the Tanner’s guests, in his house overnight. People in the village must have been wagging their tongues like crazy! “Can you believe Tanner would have THOSE people stay at his house?”
But they hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. The next morning Peter and 6 other Jewish Christians left with these strange Gentiles, and headed out with them to the fringes. The fringes of Judea, to the fringes of the faith (Cornelius was a good and prayerful guy, but he was a Gentile, and his family were Gentiles, and he was a Centurion in the Roman Army of all things!). And what Peter and these guys did when they got there has echoed throughout the centuries.